The Broken Road/XIII
Violet Oliver drove back to her camp in the company of her friends and they remarked upon her silence.
"You are tired, Violet?" her hostess asked of her.
"A little, perhaps," Violet admitted, and, urging fatigue as her excuse, she escaped to her tent. There she took counsel of her looking-glass.
"I couldn't possibly have foreseen that he would be here," she pleaded to her reflection. "He was to have stayed in Chiltistan. I asked him and he told me that he meant to stay. If he had stayed there, he would never have known that I was in India," and she added and repeated, "It's really not my fault."
In a word she was distressed and sincerely distressed. But it was not upon her own account. She was not thinking of the awkwardness to her of this unexpected encounter. But she realised that she had given pain where she had meant not to give pain. Shere Ali had seen her. He had been assured that she sought to avoid him. And this was not the end. She must go on and give more pain.
Violet Oliver had hoped and believed that her friendship with the young Prince was something which had gone quite out of her life. She had closed it and put it away, as you put away upon an upper shelf a book which you do not mean to read again. The last word had been spoken eight months ago in the conservatory of Lady Marfield's house. And behold they had met again. There must be yet another meeting, yet another last interview. And from that last interview nothing but pain could come to Shere Ali. Therefore she anticipated it with a great reluctance. Violet Oliver did not live among illusions. She was no sentimentalist. She never made up and rehearsed in imagination little scenes of a melting pathos where eternal adieux were spoken amid tears. She had no appreciation of the woeful luxury of last interviews. On the contrary, she hated to confront distress or pain. It was in her character always to take the easier way when trouble threatened. She would have avoided altogether this meeting with Shere Ali, had it been possible.
"It's a pity," she said, and that was all. She was reluctant, but she had no misgiving. Shere Ali was to her still the youth to whom she had said good-bye in Lady Marfield's conservatory. She had seen him in the flush of victory after a close-fought game, and thus she had seen him often enough before. It was not to be wondered at that she noted no difference at that moment.
But the difference was there for the few who had eyes to see. He had journeyed up the broken road into Chiltistan. At the Fort of Chakdara, in the rice fields on the banks of the Swat river, he had taken his luncheon one day with the English commandant and the English doctor, and there he had parted with the ways of life which had become to him the only ways. He had travelled thence for a few hundred yards along a straight strip of road running over level ground, and so with the levies of Dir to escort him he swung round to the left. A screen of hillside and grey rock moved across the face of the country behind him. The last outpost was left behind. The Fort and the Signal Tower on the pinnacle opposite and the English flag flying over all were hidden from his sight. Wretched as any exile from his native land, Shere All went up into the lower passes of the Himalayas. Days were to pass and still the high snow-peaks which glittered in the sky, gold in the noonday, silver in the night time, above the valleys of Chiltistan were to be hidden in the far North. But already the words began to be spoken and the little incidents to occur which were to ripen him for his destiny. They were garnered into his memories as separate and unrelated events. It was not until afterwards that he came to know how deeply they had left their marks, or that he set them in an ordered sequence and gave to them a particular significance. Even at the Fort of Chakdara a beginning had been made.
Shere Ali was standing in the little battery on the very summit of the Fort. Below him was the oblong enclosure of the men's barracks, the stone landings and steps, the iron railings, the numbered doors. He looked down into the enclosure as into a well. It might almost have been a section of the barracks at Chatham. But Shere Ali raised his head, and, over against him, on the opposite side of a natural gateway in the hills, rose the steep slope and the Signal Tower.
"I was here," said the Doctor, who stood behind him, "during the Malakand campaign. You remember it, no doubt?"
"I was at Oxford. I remember it well," said Shere Ali.
"We were hard pressed here, but the handful of men in the Signal Tower had the worst of it," continued the Doctor in a matter-of-fact voice. "It was reckoned that there were fourteen thousand men from the Swat Valley besieging us, and as they did not mind how many they lost, even with the Maxims and our wire defences it was difficult to keep them off. We had to hold on to the Signal Tower because we could communicate with the people on the Malakand from there, while we couldn't from the Fort itself. The Amandara ridge, on the other side of the valley, as you can see, just hides the Pass from us. Well, the handful of men in the tower managed to keep in communication with the main force, and this is how it was done. A Sepoy called Prem Singh used to come out into full view of the enemy through a porthole of the tower, deliberately set up his apparatus, and heliograph away to the main force in the Malakand Camp, with the Swatis firing at him from short range. How it was he was not hit, I could never understand. He did it day after day. It was the bravest and coolest thing I ever saw done or ever heard of, with one exception, perhaps. Prem Singh would have got the Victoria Cross—" and the Doctor stopped suddenly and his face flushed.
Shere Ali, however, was too keenly interested in the incident itself to take any note of the narrator's confusion. Baldly though it was told, there was the square, strong tower with its door six feet from the ground, its machicoulis, its narrow portholes over against him, to give life and vividness to the story. Here that brave deed had been done and daily repeated. Shere Ali peopled the empty slopes which ran down from the tower to the river and the high crags beyond the tower with the hordes of white-clad Swatis, all in their finest robes, like men who have just reached the goal of a holy pilgrimage, as indeed they had. He saw their standards, he heard the din of their firearms, and high above them on the wall of the tower he saw the khaki-clad figure of a single Sepoy calmly flashing across the valley news of the defenders' plight.
"Didn't he get the Victoria Cross?" he asked.
"No," returned the Doctor with a certain awkwardness. But still Shere Ali did not notice.
"And what was the exception?" he asked eagerly. "What was the other brave deed you have seen fit to rank with this?"
"That, too, happened over there," said the Doctor, seizing upon the question with relief. "During the early days of the siege we were able to send in to the tower water and food. But when the first of August came we could help them no more. The enemy thronged too closely round us, we were attacked by night and by day, and stone sangars, in which the Swatis lay after dark, were built between us and the tower. We sent up water to the tower for the last time at half-past nine on a Saturday morning, and it was not until half-past four on the Monday afternoon that the relieving force marched across the bridge down there and set us free."
"They were without water for all that time—and in August?" cried Shere Ali.
"No," the Doctor answered. "But they would have been had the Sepoy not found his equal. A bheestie"—and he nodded his head to emphasise the word—"not a soldier at all, but a mere water-carrier, a mere camp-follower, volunteered to go down to the river. He crept out of the tower after nightfall with his water-skins, crawled down between the sangars—and I can tell you the hill-side was thick with them—to the brink of the Swat river below there, filled his skins, and returned with them."
"That man, too, earned the Victoria Cross," said Shere Ali.
"Yes," said the Doctor, "no doubt, no doubt."
Something of flurry was again audible in his voice, and this time Shere Ali noticed it.
"Earned—but did not get it?" he went on slowly; and turning to the Doctor he waited quietly for an answer. The answer was given reluctantly, after a pause.
"Well! That is so."
The question was uttered sharply, close upon the words which had preceded it. The Doctor looked upon the ground, shifted his feet, and looked up again. He was a young man, and inexperienced. The question was repeated.
The Doctor's confusion increased. He recognised that his delay in answering only made the answer more difficult to give. It could not be evaded. He blurted out the truth apologetically.
"Well, you see, we don't give the Victoria Cross to natives."
Shere Ali was silent for a while. He stood with his eyes fixed upon the tower, his face quite inscrutable.
"Yes, I guessed that would be the reason," he said quietly.
"Well," said his companion uncomfortably, "I expect some day that will be altered."
Shere Ali shrugged his shoulders, and turned to go down. At the gateway of the Fort, by the wire bridge, his escort, mounted upon their horses, waited for him. He climbed into the saddle without a word. He had been labouring for these last days under a sense of injury, and his thoughts had narrowed in upon himself. He was thinking. "I, too, then, could never win that prize." His conviction that he was really one of the White People, bolstered up as it had been by so many vain arguments, was put to the test of fact. The truth shone in upon his mind. For here was a coveted privilege of the White People from which he was debarred, he and the bheestie and the Sepoy. They were all one, he thought bitterly, to the White People. The invidious bar of his colour was not to be broken.
"Good-bye," he said, leaning down from his saddle and holding out his hand. "Thank you very much."
He shook hands with the Doctor and cantered down the road, with a smile upon his face. But the consciousness of the invidious bar was rankling cruelly at his heart, and it continued to rankle long after he had swung round the bend of the road and had lost sight of Chakdara and the English flag.
He passed through Jandol and climbed the Lowari Pass among the fir trees and the pines, and on the very summit he met three men clothed in brown homespun with their hair clubbed at the sides of their heads. Each man carried a rifle on his back and two of them carried swords besides, and they wore sandals of grass upon their feet. They were talking as they went, and they were talking in the Chilti tongue. Shere Ali hailed them and bade them stop.
"On what journey are you going?" he asked, and one of the three bowed low and answered him.
"Sir, we are going to Mecca."
"To Mecca!" exclaimed Shere Ali. "How will you ever get to Mecca? Have you money?"
"Sir, we have each six rupees, and with six rupees a man may reach Mecca from Kurrachee. Till we reach Kurrachee, there is no fear that we shall starve. Dwellers in the villages will befriend us."
"Why, that is true," said Shere Ali, "but since you are countrymen of my own and my father's subjects, you shall not tax too heavily your friends upon the road."
He added to their scanty store of rupees, and one after another they thanked him and so went cheerily down the Pass. Shere Ali watched them as they went, wondering that men should take such a journey and endure so much discomfort for their faith. He watched their dwindling figures and understood how far he was set apart from them. He was of their faith himself, nominally at all events, but Mecca—? He shrugged his shoulders at the name. It meant no more to him than it did to the White People who had cast him out. But that chance meeting lingered in his memory, and as he travelled northwards, he would wonder at times by night at what village his three countrymen slept and by day whether their faith still cheered them on their road.
He came at last to the borders of Chiltistan, and travelled thenceforward through a country rich with orchards and green rice and golden amaranth. The terraced slopes of the mountains, ablaze with wild indigo, closed in upon him and widened out. Above the terraces great dark forests of pines and deodars, maples and horse chestnuts clung to the hill sides; and above the forests grass slopes stretched up to bare rock and the snowfields. From the villages the people came out to meet him, and here and there from some castle of a greater importance a chieftain would ride out with his bodyguard, gay in velvets, and silks from Bokhara and chogas of gold kinkob, and offer to him gold dust twisted up in the petal of a flower, which he touched and remitted. He was escorted to polo-grounds and sat for hours witnessing sports and trials of skill, and at night to the music of kettledrums and pipes men and boys danced interminably before him. There was one evening which he particularly remembered. He had set up his camp outside a large village and was sitting alone by his fire in the open air. The night was very still, the sky dark but studded with stars extraordinarily bright—so bright, indeed, that Shere Ali could see upon the water of the river below the low cliff on which his camp fire was lit a trembling golden path made by the rays of a planet. And as he sat, unexpectedly in the hush a boy with a clear, sweet voice began to sing from the darkness behind him. The melody was plaintive and sweet; a few notes of a pipe accompanied him; and as Shere Ali listened in this high valley of the Himalayas on a summer's night, the music took hold upon him and wrung his heart. The yearning for all that he had left behind became a pain almost beyond endurance. The days of his boyhood and his youth went by before his eyes in a glittering procession. His school life, his first summer term at Oxford, the Cherwell with the shadows of the branches overhead dappling the water, the strenuous week of the Eights, his climbs with Linforth, and, above all, London in June, a London bright with lilac and sunshine and the fair faces of women, crowded in upon his memory. He had been steadily of late refusing to remember, but the sweet voice and the plaintive melody had caught him unawares. The ghosts of his dead pleasures trooped out and took life and substance. Particular hours were lived through again—a motor ride alone with Violet Oliver to Pangbourne, a dinner on the lawn outside the inn, the drive back to London in the cool of the evening. It all seemed very far away to-night. Shere Ali sat late beside his fire, nor when he went into his tent did he close his eyes.
The next morning he rode among orchards bright with apricots and mulberries, peaches and white grapes, and in another day he looked down from a high cliff, across which the road was carried on a scaffolding, upon the town of Kohara and the castle of his father rising in terraces upon a hill behind. The nobles and their followers came out to meet him with courteous words and protestations of good will. But they looked him over with curious and not too friendly eyes. News had gone before Shere Ali that the young Prince of Chiltistan was coming to Kohara wearing the dress of the White People. They saw that the news was true, but no word or comment was uttered in his hearing. Joking and laughing they escorted him to the gates of his father's palace. Thus Shere Ali at the last had come home to Kohara. Of the life which he lived there he was to tell something to Violet Oliver.